The Slatest

OK, but Lie Isn’t Really the Right Way to Describe Trump’s Illegal-Voters BS Either

Donald Trump with General Motors CEO Mary Barra and Fiat Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne at the White House on Tuesday.

Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

The poor New York Times gets it from every direction. Conservatives think it’s an organ of the Democratic Party. Leftists think it’s stuffy and out of touch. Moderates … I don’t know, let’s say they circumvent the online paywall system by using multiple browsers. Freakin’ cheapskate moderates!

But anyway. One of the media controversies of the Donald Trump era has been over how to describe the nonsense he says. The old journalistic convention of writing that a politician has made a “controversial” or “disputed” claim seems inadequate to the relentless, bad-faith assaults on empirical truth that Trump and his goons regularly conduct. (See: “alternative facts.”) A lot of Trump critics think that journalists, especially the influential ones at the Times, should be more willing to say that Trump or his administration lied about this or that.

Last night the Times used the L-word in a headline on its report that Trump, in a meeting with congressional leaders, had repeated and embellished his earlier claim that millions of undocumented immigrants voted illegally for Hillary Clinton last November.

Many of Trump’s online haterz were pleased by this callout, including, to pick a random example, vampire expert Anne Rice.

But, but, but. Was it really a lie? A lie, in the common definition, is an intentionally told untruth. For Trump’s statement to be a lie, it would have to be a “proven” “fact” both that millions of undocumented immigrants didn’t vote in 2016 and that Trump knows this.

On the first question, to be clear, there is no evidence whatsoever of illegal voting on this scale. None of America’s thousands of voting-station volunteers, its partisan and nonpartisan watchdogs, its prosecutors, or its journalists have identified any evidence of such activity. (The claim appears to have originated with a random right-wing operative who says he arrived at the figure through “analysis” of a “database” that he won’t release or otherwise discuss. It was then circulated and hyped by InfoWars and the other usual suspects in the far-right media.)

And yet it would be inaccurate to say that Trump himself knows that millions of undocumented immigrants did not vote in the election. For one, no one has actually gone through all 128.8 million votes to, like, double-check that there weren’t a few million fraudulent ones. No one needs to do that, but it’s still not something that has been definitively and affirmatively verified. On Trump’s end, he appears to truly believe a lot of weird and implausible things, and does not evaluate evidence with great rigor. I would personally be willing to bet that, at the moments that he has made his “3 million illegal voters” claims, he has believed them.

Lie is sometimes the right word for what Trump does. His claim that he saw thousands of Muslims on TV celebrating 9/11 in New Jersey, for example, is a lie. We know which TV channels were broadcasting on 9/11, and we know that none of them showed such an event, which means he didn’t actually do what he’s saying he did. Trump tweeting that the U.S. intelligence community “stated very strongly there was absolutely no evidence that [Russian] hacking affected the election results” is a lie; we have a public record of what intelligence officials have said and written about that issue, and they’ve in fact gone out of their way not to say whether there is or is not evidence that hacking affected the results. Etc. He does lie. But that’s not always exactly what he’s doing.

To wit, this is what I would have gone with in re: the voting stuff.

Photo illustration by Slate